Deforestation is one of the most visible of humanity’s destructive impacts on the planet, with mowed-down forests around the world emptied of animal and plant species. And despite the fact that wood has been a reliable staple for generations, used for building homes and making paper among other things, it is in no way a rapidly renewable resource. Even with the presence of managed forests and the availability of reclaimed wood, our dependence on timber continues to grow exponentially alongside world population. Which makes us wonder: can we possibly keep using wood and call it sustainable?
Human history of wood
During the Devonian period over 375 million years ago, trees were among the main drivers of climate change. This was the era when land-based plants first appeared and therefore our ecosystem became deeply intertwined with forests. As oxygen-breathing mammals, we rely on trees, which use carbon dioxide in photosynthesis to create oxygen. Without trees and photosynthesis, we wouldn’t exist.
Despite understanding how critical trees are to supporting life on earth, we continue to denude huge areas of woodland every year, with no sign of slowing down. Used for shelter, tools and heat, wood has been a staple resource since prehistoric times, but as the global human population has skyrocketed–giving rise to agriculture, towns and cities–our hunger for timber has grown with it. On an evolutionary scale this sharp spike in timber usage has occurred in a very short period of time.
A global issue
It is easy to imagine that deforestation is limited to the developing world. News reports often focus on South America and Africa as examples of continents where deforestation is particularly rife, but this is not the case at all. Sweden, Finland and Portugal all appear in the top 10 list of countries that lost the most trees between 2000 and 2012. The main reasons attributed to this loss include fire, logging and environmental factors. For example, pine beetles in North America have destroyed some 16 million of the 55 million hectares of pine forest in British Columbia.
The real tragedy of deforestation is that with proper forest management and cooperation, we could have more than enough wood to meet all our global needs. However, even if we managed all our forests in a sustainable way, we still have to consider the use of specific timbers very carefully and promote less popular but similar alternatives to rare and coveted woods. For example, you might not be able to choose mahogany decking, but you could have that same decking in FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) larch or treated pine.
Keeping a healthy stock of older trees and using plantations of younger trees as the primary logging source
Making a responsible choice about the wood we use is a hugely important first step in dealing with the issue of deforestation. A lot of European beech, ash and oak have been taken (sometimes illegally) from ancient forests in Romania, Latvia and Estonia, a practice that is not only unsustainable but destroys sites of incomparable natural beauty. A key aspect of managed forests is keeping a healthy stock of older trees and using plantations of younger trees as the primary logging source. Using best practice forest management and schemes such as the FSC keeps forests in good condition, and their overall health is seen as more important than the timber they can yield.
Wood can be a sustainable material and we do have the ability to supply world demand, but only if we take responsibility for managing it properly and start to see it more as the vital global resource that it is.
H/T to inhabitat